As It Happens

'A piece of history': Irma unearths canoe in Florida that could be from the 1800s

A Florida beachcomber came across a possibly centuries-old canoe while surveying Hurricane Irma's damage along the state's east coast last week.
This dugout canoe washed ashore in Florida during Hurricane Irma. The Florida Division of Historical Resources says it's 'maximum several hundred years old and minimum probably several decades old.' (Randy Lathrop)

Story transcript

A Florida beachcomber came across what could be the discovery of a lifetime last week while surveying Hurricane Irma's damage along the state's east coast.

Cocoa, Fla. photographer Randy Lathrop was riding his bike along the Indian River when he spotted what appeared to be an old dugout canoe.

"I was astounded and astonished at what I was looking at, so I took a quick picture of it with my cellphone and I texted it to an underwater archeologist friend of mine," Lathrop told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "He was like, 'Holy Smokes!' And I was like, 'Yeah, I don't believe it.'"

Dugout canoes are made from hollowed-out cypress trees and have long been used by Florida's Seminole Indians, as well as other tribes, according to the University of Florida.

The one Lathrop found could possibly be centuries old, and it's in "phenomenal condition," he said.

"We suspect that it was probably covered up in the sub-bottom because there's virtually hardly any marine growth on it," he said.

"It's in great shape. In fact, there's actually in certain portions of it little remnants of what looks like paint. A little red paint, possibly, and a little white paint in areas."

Circa 1941, Native American Seminole Chief Willie Osoeola balances on his dugout canoe. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Lathrop immediately called up another friend who owns a truck so they could move the relic before it got cleared out along with the rest of Irma's debris. Then they called the Florida Division of Historical Resources (FDHR), as is required by state law.

Early evaluations by a professional archeologist indicate the canoe is "maximum several hundred years old and minimum probably several decades old," the FDHR wrote on Facebook.

They won't know know for sure until the results of carbon-dating come back from the lab in a couple weeks. 

Hundreds of old canoes have been found in Florida over the years. 

"These important artifacts range in date from a few hundred years old to well over 6,000 years showing the significance of Florida's long aquatic cultural heritage," according to the Florida Museum.

However, Lathrop's find appears unique in a number of ways, including the boat's shape, construction and paint.

"The construction is atypical, with not only a squared off form commonly seen in the historic period, but compartments and what appears to be a seat," the FDHR said in a Facebook post.

The presence of cut nails suggests it was built after the first Indigenous contact with European colonizers in the region, it added. 

Lathrop, himself a history buff, suspects it is from the 1800s, but he cautions that he's "not an expert of any kind."

"That's why we're anxious for the experts to look at it, anxious to get some more information," he said.

An elder shows Seminole children how to carve a canoe from cypress. (Willard R. Culver/National Geographic/Getty Images)

As a historical artifact, the boat automatically belongs to the state.

"The canoe is currently being kept wet and is in a safe place," the FDHR said. "The Division of Historical Resources is working with local museums to provide a short-term and long term plan for its conservation, preservation, and ultimate public display in Cocoa."

Lathrop, meanwhile, has become the envy of his fellow beachcombers.

He often scans the shores for Spanish coins and other treasures from old shipwrecks, but he's never discovered anything quite like this.

"You never know what these storms are going to uncover," he said.

"It's romantic that you can go on a bike ride and find a piece of history like this. You don't have to get on a salvage boat, you don't have to be a diver, you don't have to solicit all kinds of funds to be able to do  this. I just simply went on a bike ride. That's all I did."